Michael Bacon‘s music can be described in many ways, but more than anything, it could be called the soundtrack to history. From his Emmy-winning score for The Kennedys to his music for Truman, and from his music for the mini-series Faces of America to his compelling score for the The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer featuring David Strathairn, Michael’s music captures the human element in each of his projects with its sensitivity, directness, and deference to its subject.
In 2009, when the US and the world mourned the loss of Senator Ted Kennedy, the documentary Teddy: In His Own Words was broadcast repeatedly on HBO and CNN to millions of viewers. The film, which won two Emmys including Outstanding Nonfiction Special, featured no narration or voice-overs other than interviews and speeches by Sen. Kennedy himself. Michael’s score for that film was the musical foundation for the story of Sen. Kennedy’s life, which chronicled the lawmaker’s boyhood, the murders of his brothers, his own tumult and controversy, and his final role as an elder statesman.
One of Michael’s current projects is the score for Good Fortune – The Story of Morgenthau, a major full-length documentary by Max Lewkowicz of Dog Green Productions. Good Fortune tells the story of one of America’s most influential families through an unbroken chain of three generations concluding with Robert Morgenthau, the longtime Manhattan district attorney. The film screened in September of this year at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, and is planned for an upcoming premiere broadcast on PBS.
Michael recorded the orchestral score to Good Fortune earlier this year, and I recently had a chance to catch up with him about the movie, his process, how he uses Sibelius, and his other projects. (Disclosure: I have worked on several of Michael’s scores, including Good Fortune, as a music preparer and orchestrator.)
I was curious how Michael perceived the score to the Morgenthau film in the context of his recent film and television projects. “Morgenthau was one of the most musically diverse projects for which I’ve ever written,” Michael said. “A sixty-piece orchestra, a six-piece rock band with three horns, atmospheric loop-driven synth cues, solo cello, and more. It’s rare that I get to work with orchestra, as both Teddy and Faces of America are hybrid live/synth scores with around a dozen live instrumentalists.”
Indeed, in addition to featuring a full orchestra, the film features covers of two popular tunes performed by the The Bacon Brothers band, of which Michael is one half, along with his younger brother Kevin. Michael explained, “Max Lewkowicz is a huge Bob Dylan fan. He felt “Serve Somebody” captured the feeling of the Morgenthau dynasty’s commitment to public service. We also did a gritty cover of [Billy Joel’s] ‘New York State of Mind’. I thought we comported ourselves quite well!”
The musical depiction of the Morgenthaus extended to the orchestral score. “Max saw Robert Morgenthau [not only as a distinguished public servant but] also as a quirky, irreverent guy,” Michael told me. “He liked high, ornamented piano lines to reflect this. My other preexisting concept [for the Morgenthau score] was the use of passacaglia. I’ve used this several times with shows about people in powerful positions, such as [the PBS mini-series] Napoleon. The repeating bass figure feels like unremitting drive and ambition that is easy to morph around for different emotional situations, while maintaining a consistent spine.”
That led me to ask if Michael ever used historical music in his scores. “Yes,” he answered, “in fact, I just got finished re-orchestrating some Civil War-era military pieces for a re-release of Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. Some of the cornet parts were devilishly hard!”